Unshackle NU and Northwestern Divest inappropriately provided wholesale definitions of Jewish and Zionist identities in their letter to North by Northwestern last quarter. By asserting that Judaism is “a religious identity” and that Zionism is merely a “political identity,” the two campaigns inexcusably lay a claim on the identities of others. They cannot accept that Judaism is not always “religious.” They do not appreciate that a Zionist identity is, for many like myself, an entirely religious experience deeply rooted in Torah thought and practice, a way I serve God. And they don’t allow a Zionist like me to fight Israeli racism and express solidarity against institutional anti-blackness.
When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, my Israelite ancestors, who suddenly faced an exiled, landless existence, began a two-millenia enterprise of self-examination, resulting in definitive heterogeneity. We continue to define Judaism in deliberately disparate ways.
Likewise, the dominant Zionist ideologies were always political — Labor, Revisionist, and others. Other important manifestations, however, by no means necessitated the creation of a political state. Are these voices to be automatically excluded because Zionism is a dirty word that represents only oppression — not a false representation — but nothing else?
The letter points selectively towards Jewish Voice for Peace and Neturei Karta as Jewish groups that oppose conflating Zionism and Judaism. Unshackle NU and NU Divest insinuate that these groups and “countless others” have exclusive license to define Judaism and Zionism for the rest of the Jewish people. The deep Jewish tradition of “mahloket,” creative disagreement in Torah study, insists that no one Jewish group can legitimately define either “identity” for everyone else. The two campaigns denounce the State of Israel’s engagement in that very act of “defining for everyone else.” But they themselves do just that by designating only two Jewish organizations to learn from.
My beliefs also defy categorical statements about either identity. My experience of Judaism is Torah-infused, “religious,” but certainly not just that: I’ve been attending secular Yiddish theater since early childhood and have participated in Jewish sports leagues. Many secular American Jews, and “hiloni” (secular) Israelis too, take umbrage at those calling their Jewish identities “religious,” yet they feel very Jewish. It is no coincidence that the debate over how and whether to define the state’s “Jewish character” is the reason Israel has no constitution.
The Zionism I identify with most is a religious identity.
My religious practice, minute-to-minute, is predicated on an active orientation toward a land of eternal sanctity, “Eretz Yisrael.” My religiosity is Zionist. Every time I finish eating grain-based foods — a simple Clif Bar — I say an ancient liturgical passage that thanks God for agricultural sustenance and the precious land of our ancestors. This blessing, which was not written by Theodor Herzl or Ariel Sharon, continues by asking God for mercy upon the land and the ancient Temple, and that God should bring Jews up to the land — but not without compassion.
The intersection between food, geography and sanctity shows that the Jewish yearning for an ancestral homeland — Zionism — is a part of every bite, embedded in the ritual minutiae. And it’s not just a yearning. To serve God fully, there are agricultural commandments I feel obligated to fulfill — they require living in Israel.
The ancient Hebrew texts, particularly blessings of justice and ingathering exiles, require me to direct as much intention to ending anti-Black oppression and the Israeli military occupation as to a return to the land of Israel. When saying “May our eyes behold Your (God’s) return to Zion in mercy” in all three daily prayer services, another Jewish obligation, my intention is a thirst for the land, but one that must reflect God’s merciful side. I pray to realize the “natural morality” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — the spiritual father of Religious Zionism — dwelled upon.
My teacher, the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, was a controversial and seemingly contradictory peace activist (he was a settler leader who opposed military occupation). He denounced the common, perverse Religious Zionist approach to the land of Israel, a racist approach that turns deep desire into ideology that conquers rather than integrates. The land does not belong to us, Froman said — we belong to the land, and the land belongs to God. Of course, it would be unjust to claim the nonexistence of legal land-ownership or to wield divine “ownership” as an excuse to settle anywhere, as Religious Zionist settlers have done. Such claims ignore decades of illegal Israeli theft of Palestinian land and acts of ethnic cleansing in 1948.
Rabbi Froman teaches that to live in God’s land, Jews must act with utmost sensitivity and love toward the Other, the human being, the infinite “image of God” in our midst, for they too — Palestinian tears, family, culture, humanity — belong to God’s land. We cannot reverse history. But secular and religious Jews and Zionists must look at history and recognize that there was a Palestinian Nakba, a catastrophic reality that did not end in 1948 and that the Jewish “aliyah” (ascent) to Palestine should not have happened at the cost of displacing 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.
One of God’s many names in Judaism is “Shalom,” which means “peace.” To put an end to the desecration of God’s name, Israelis and Palestinians must learn to love one another today. But that can only happen in parallel with Jewish Israeli efforts — yes, even religiously-inspired efforts — to end the racism, the suffering, the occupation, the erasure of land and history.
From within Jewish secularism and religiosity can come Zionism, and from within Zionism a love of peace and a hatred of oppression can exist. Just as Judaism constantly develops, Zionism can and must take a courageous step outside of its own blemished history.
Adam Chanes is a Northwestern University freshman.
This essay was first published on The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.